A Night at the Theatre ….
(‘Tis that time of year again …. and I am late. And it is late. And this is a little long. Still, I hope it pleases ….Happy Spooking ! And don’t forget to hop along to all the others taking part in the Coffin Hop (links on the site), the annual Halloween blog hop with over 60 authors & artists participating, each with something to offer, whether giveaways or contests as well as some fun tales of terror … in a few days I’ll be offering my tale Ungentle Sleep and there will also be a chance via giveaway to receive Cass McMain’s unusual take on vampirism in Watch, from Holland House Books (30-31 October, post coming soon…)
Pad, pad, pad, pant, pant, pant, pad, pad, pad, pant, pant. Woof.
‘Good boy, sit. All right, don’t sit, but stop wandering around, there’s a good fellow. Where were we?’ Felix Hartley, proprietor of the Rose Theatre, turned back to the theatre’s director, Daniel Wells. ‘Props, wasn’t it?’
It wasn’t props (Felix had a terrible habit of not paying attention) but it didn’t make much difference. Felix tended to leave everything in Wells’s capable hands, as he worded it. Thereby adding to the general headache of the thing.
‘It’s the footprints,’ repeated Wells, not a little wearily. Added to Felix’s propensity for not listening, he had a seeming inability to grasp the whole question of the reddish footprints appearing unannounced in various parts of the building. They did not make an impact on him, even when pointed out in all their disturbing detail. ‘Oh, ah, yes, those,’ he would say, patting his pockets, followed by ‘Now, about rehearsals for next week …’
Woof, went the overweight Pekinese at his feet, as if in support.
‘A few more have handed in their notice,’ continued Wells, now a little crossly, ‘and I simply do not have the time to be looking for fresh staff at such short notice – there’s the opening night in a week’s time, the scenery still to be sorted, and the lighting.’
‘Dear, dear, no, of course not. What a thing to happen. Cleaners, again ?’
The Pekinese started snuffling at Felix’s trouser hems.
‘Cleaners, call boy and now the prompter. Some of the cast are getting nervy too. Isobel’s threatening to pull out altogether unless something is sorted. What are we to do?’ This was serious. Isobel Courtney was the leading lady and a positive catch for the theatre itself, which had been teetering gently for a while now.
Finally Felix looked quizzical – a sign he might actually be applying himself to the problem in hand. The Pekinese meanwhile started padding around the room again.
‘Well,’ he said, after a long pause which indicated he had been debating with himself on a ticklish issue, ‘you could try … Septimus Brink.’
‘Septimus Brink? Who or what is Septimus Brink?’
‘Old crony of mine. Knows this place. He’ll also know what to do with, ah, them.’
They were interrupted by muffled pandemonium from below. A red-faced youth in ill-fitting cap and suit appeared breathlessly at the open doorway of Felix’s office. ‘It’s the dresser,’ he gasped, ‘something nasty in the wardrobe, so she says, threatening to hand in her notice.’ He gazed appealingly at Wells. ‘Will you come?’
‘I’ll be there in a minute – where is she now?’
‘Miss Aikfield’s dressing room, with the smelling salts.’
‘Very well – send for a doctor.’
Felix stared after the departing youth in puzzlement. ‘Isn’t he the understudy for –‘
‘Masefield, yes, he’s now doubling up as call boy until we get a new one. This Septimus Brink – when can he come?’
Septimus Brink was a large presence; while not overweight, his bearing was of the sort that can fill a room on its own and knock an elephant down at ten paces flat. He had a tendency to boom at people in a kindly manner until they gave in and let him carry on whole conversations uninterrupted. He was not what you might imagine a ghost-catcher to be, having none of the airs and graces of society mediums nor the mystery of a psychic, yet he proved very efficient at relieving people of unwanted ‘presences’, real or imaginary, with a happy combination of curiosity and common sense.
He swept into the theatre later that day with ample coat tails and a sleek top hat, and on sighting Felix boomed out: ‘It’s you again, is it?’ in avuncular fashion. Felix actually shuffled his feet and looked a trifle sheepish. His Pekinese let out a yelp of welcome and began wagging its tail.
‘Well, what is it this time?’
Felix turned to Wells, who took over with a resigned air: ‘I’d better just show you – and you could try talking to the dresser, the prompter; they haven’t left – yet.’
Wells escorted Brink along the corridor, towards the dressing rooms, whence an increasing volubility could be discerned; notably, the dresser and various members of the cast.
‘’Orrible it were,’ came the nasal tones of the dresser, ‘only saw it for an instance, but my life, never again – you won’t get me inside that room, I tell you – ‘orrible!’
‘There, there, dear, have some more brandy – oh, you have already,’ comforted one of the actors. The dresser, wobbly and sliding fast into mild incoherence, tottered over to a small easy chair and sank into it.
‘Show us the wardrobe, then,’ said Brink, to nobody in particular. Felix escorted him to the end of the corridor; on the left was a recess, with a cracked and peeling door on which was scratched in chalk the single word ‘WARD’.
‘Ran out of chalk?’ asked Brink.
‘Something like that,’ murmured, Felix, now distinctly ill at ease. ‘We just never got around to adjusting it. Whole place needs doing up, really …’ His Pekinese started to whimper.
Brink opened the door and fumbled about for the switch.
‘Allow me,’ offered Felix. ‘Yap,’ went the Pekinese, cringing.
For barely a second as the light switched on, a figure was visible, smack in the middle of the room. Even Brink was visibly shaken. The light flickered and the figure moved towards them – then was gone. The Pekinese yapped and yelped and had to be picked up.
‘Yes,’ commented Brink, ‘yes, I see. Quite upsetting, I imagine.’
‘Anything you can do?’ asked Felix.
‘Show me where these footprints are.’
‘Wells can do that – where is he…’
‘They turn up in different areas,’ explained Wells, once they had tracked him down to the stage where he had taken refuge behind a leftover precipice from the Tempest or something, ‘– sometimes outside a dressing room, sometimes in the wings, once they followed one of the cast out of the theatre – at least, it looked like that.’
‘And then vanish?’
‘Yes, yes. Quite annoying, really.’
Brink walked over to face Wells, studying him carefully. ‘Follow people about, do they?’
‘Well, I don’t know about people generally – ‘
‘Which actor was this?’
‘Portland, Dicky Portland; he called in sick today – hope he’s not another one skedaddling off …’ Wells rubbed his head wearily, Felix jingled change in his pocket, whistling silently and the Pekinese, at his heels, woofed in muted sympathy.
Brink studied Wells a little more, then clapped him on the back.
‘Show me, as far as you can remember, the areas where the footprints have been seen. Starting with the first time they were seen.’
‘Oh dear, as far as I can remember … well … as to when, that’s easy enough – two days into rehearsals. At least, that’s when I saw them, just as I was coming up to the stage from the wings.’
‘Anyone on stage already?’
‘Oh yes, most of the cast, in fact. ‘
‘What did you see, exactly?’
‘Just that – footsteps, red ones – going around the stage as if someone were looking for something – or someone. I called for it to be cleaned – but by the time the boy came with mop and bucket, they had faded. Most perplexing. However, they didn’t reappear for a few days and we got on with things.’
Wells led them through the wings offstage and back to the dressing rooms. ‘Several times here, stopping outside different doors. Which ones? That I actually can’t remember, sorry, – but gave several people a fright. ’
‘How long would you say it took for them to fade?’
‘They seem to last a little longer each time – most recently, a day.’
‘Most satisfactory,’ said Brink comfortably. Wells stared at him. ‘Well, I’m glad to hear someone thinks so,’ he exclaimed, somewhat bitterly. ‘The question remains, what are you able to do about it?’
‘It might not rest with me, however,’ replied Brink, still completely at ease. ‘I would say however, that things are reaching a climax.’
‘I should say they are,’ complained Wells. ‘I have a cast in shreds, and notices being handed in left right and centre.’
‘It will require a late night at the theatre – let me see …’ Brink rummaged around in his pockets and drew out a small almanac. ‘Yes, I would say, in two night’s time. Full cast present. No excuses. I meanwhile shall attend to a little research. You can perhaps show me a list of all performances given here in the last, ooh, shall we say, twenty to forty years?’ Wells was quite nonplussed at this; Felix stepped forward. ‘I have records in my office. Follow me.’
Two nights and many, many complaints later, the full cast was assembled on stage: pale, wary and nervous. Wells, Felix (followed by Pekinese) and Brink joined them, bearing respectively an object strongly reminiscent of a gramophone player, a round folding table and a tripod and camera.
The table was set up, the object strongly reminiscent of a gramophone player placed upon it, and Brink proceeded to set up the tripod and camera. The cast, with expressions varying from mild incredulity to outrage, gazed on speechless. Which, as Wells said afterwards, was something of a miracle in itself and passing all matters supernatural.
Brink took centre stage and began.
‘How does the ditty go – I have a little list, I have a little list,’ he chanted, pulling out a folded paper from his pocket. He proceeded to unfold it, as he went on: ‘After a little hunting about in the history of this place, and a little puzzle-solving, I rather think I have found a solution. By midnight or a little after, this theatre should be freed of its uninvited occupants and the show can, as they say, go on … The fact that there is to be a full moon should assist in the energizing of the elements involved.’ He ignored the derisive snort or two from his audience and continued, while consulting his notes: ‘From the records kept here at the theatre, I have discovered the following facts: one, that a performance of Macbeth was held in this very theatre in 1900 – no more than ten years ago.’
A slight stiffening of the cast here. Several members resolutely avoided looking at each other.
‘Said performance ran for one week only, owing to a fatal accident, depriving one of the actors of their life.’
Various intakes of breath; a collective, muted hissing. The Pekinese sniffed. Brink paused, looking around. ‘Indeed. I see some of you recall the episode well. But to proceed: the name of the hapless thespian was one Edward Vaughan.’
‘Really!’ expostulated Isobel, wrapped up in a mink stole and very irate, ‘is this necessary? Leave the poor man’s memory alone!’
‘I would, if he would – but his memory, it appears, lives on regardless. On the night of the performance, he was acting the part of Banquo – and, on cue, was indeed found dead; rather messily with a genuine claymore rather than the prop one. It appears he did not die immediately, but attempted to make his way backstage towards the dressing rooms before collapsing and expiring. Foul play was naturally not ruled out – but his assailant was never found.’
The Pekinese, still at its master’s feet, crouched down and whined a little.
‘’Those of you with longer acquaintance with this theatre might be able to recall the names of the cast of that final performance.’ He paused for dramatic effect. Nobody replied. ‘No? Then allow me to refresh your memories. Lady Macbeth, Miss Isobel Courtney, Macbeth, Roland Masefield, Macduff …’ Brink paused again. Was there a sharp movement from within the group huddled together on the stage? ‘Macduff,’ repeated Brink – ‘Richard Por-’ he was interrupted at this point however by Mr Portland who, cursing and swearing, knocked over Brink and dashed from the stage. The Pekinese set up a wild barking and bounded about in paroxysms of hysteria.
‘Stop him!’ called out Wells but there was no need. The lights flickered and went out. There was a flash, followed by the sound of feet as Portland stumbled his way down the wings, then, unmistakably, the sound of other feet behind him – cut short soon after by a hideous scream.
The lights flickered back on. A general gasp broke out as everyone observed the trail of wet, red, half footprints now visible on the boards of the stage, leading off into the wings in the direction Portland had taken.
‘Banquo’s ghost has found his murderer,’ murmured Brink, who proceeded to examine the camera.
There was a cautious dash down the corridor to where Portland’s body could now be seen, lying mute and frozen on the floor. Felix’s Pekinese slunk at his heels giving out small whimpers.
Felix patted at his pockets. ‘Should we not call for assistance?’
The doctor was called first – who pronounced a case of heart failure. No external wounds, no visible signs of attack. The footprints, as previously, had by now disappeared once again. The doctor was perfectly happy to write out a straightforward certificate, and there really seemed little point in trying to explain otherwise.
The camera plate, once developed, proved most illuminating. The moment at which Brink, with characteristic presence of mind, had taken it showed Portland in the act of running from the stage – and behind him, a figure dressed in the costume of an ancient Scottish warrior bearing a very efficient looking weapon, in hot pursuit. The relatively distinct, if horribly bloodied, features of this individual were considered, after due consultation of a few old photographs, to be unquestionably those of former dramatic actor Edward Vaughan, deceased. The dresser, on seeing it, went back into hysterics and more than half a bottle of brandy was consumed in less than half an hour. Brink and Felix both confirmed this was the figure they too had seen. The Pekinese fully recovered its former equanimity and padded about the place as if nothing remotely untoward had happened at all.
As for the object strongly reminiscent of a gramophone player – well, it was, in a sense. Rather, it was a recording device, of peculiar sensitivity. Its discs, once played on a less unorthodox machine, proved to contain not only the voice of Brink expounding on the death of Vaughan, but also that of another, fainter yet still clear, repeating at intervals : ‘Murderer – I’ll have you yet.’ It was even possible to hear in the background soft thumps, which might or might not have been footsteps.
These, along with the plate containing the spectral image of Vaughan, returned with Septimus Brink to his home, to be added to his collection of phantom memorabilia: invaluable material for his ‘Theory of Manifestation’, he said, which he would one day write up.
The red footprints, as far as anyone knows, have never since been seen at the theatre.